Rockefeller impostor's murder trial: Lawyer points finger at victim's wife in 1985 Calif. killing

Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, listens during opening statements in his trial, in Los Angeles Criminal Court on Monday, March 18, 2013. A prosecutor told jurors Monday he will prove a cold-case murder allegation against the German immigrant who spent years moving through U.S. society under a series of aliases, most notoriously posing as a member of the fabled Rockefeller family. He has pleaded not guilty to the killing of John Sohus, 27, who disappeared with his wife, Linda, in 1985 while Gerhartsreiter, using an alias was a guest cottage tenant at the home of Sohus' mother, where the couple lived. (AP Photo/Nick Ut )
Nick Ut
Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter listens during opening statements in his murder trial in Los Angeles Criminal Court, Monday, March 18, 2013
AP Photo/Nick Ut

(CBS) - A lawyer for Christian Gerhartsreiter, who for years tricked affluent socialites from New York to California into accepting his fake identities as a wealthy aristocrat, told a Los Angeles jury Monday that Gerhartsreiter did not murder computer programmer John Sohus in 1985, and instead pointed his finger at the murder victim's wife.

The prosecutor argued in his opening statement that the man who has claimed to be a Rockefeller family heir beat and stabbed Sohus to death.

Gerhartsreiter, 52, who contrived fantastic and implausible life histories for himself, wants the jury to consider that someone else killed Sohus, the son of the woman who rented her guest house to the defendant, who was then living in San Marion, Calif., under the alias Christopher Chichester.

This is a "classic case of who done it?," explained Gerhartsreiter's attorney Brad Bailey in his opening statement, calling the case, "quite old, once cold, and a story that is still untold" because, he said, it is just as plausible that someone else is the killer - not his client.

"What's currently untold is that someone might just as plausibly be John Sohus's still missing wife Linda (Sohus)," said Bailey, contending that the "6' tall, 200 lb. missing woman" could have more likely "used her size and heft to murder her husband," than could the "5'6" and 140 lb." Gerhartsreiter.

Bailey conceded that his client was a con man, but argued that did not make him a murderer.

"Sometimes it is human nature to blame the drifter, or the grifter, or the con artist. Isn't it?" he beseeched the jury, referring to his client, who he explained alternately assumed the identities Christopher Chichester, Christopher Mountbatten, Christopher Crowe, Clark Rockefeller and Chip Smith.

The defense argued that the evidence the prosecutor claims incriminates Gerhartsreiter as the killer could just as plausibly, or even more so, implicate Linda Sohus, who also has not been seen since 1985. No trace of her has been found.

L.A. County Assistant District Attorney Habib Balian on Monday told a tangled story of German immigrant Gerhartsreiter's different incarnations, starting with Chichester who infiltrated old money San Marino by bragging he was a relative of Sir Francis Chichester - famous among British royals for sailing around the world on his boat the "Gypsy Moth."

The prosecutor ridiculed the defendant for handing out business cards in the 1980s announcing himself as Christopher Chichester, "the 13th baronette of the Chichester" lineage.

The investigative trail led back across the U.S. to Greenwich, Conn., where Gerhartsreiter posed as Christopher Crowe Mountbatten, a famous Hollywood television director, frequenting a yacht club and climbing the corporate ladder as a bond trader.

Finally, the prosecutor explained how the chameleon-like defendant reinvented himself in New York City as Clark Rockefeller, supposed scion of America's wealthiest family. Using this audacious, fake identity he ultimately married a woman and fathered a daughter under the Rockefeller name, deceiving his own wife and child.

This revelation led to an acrimonious divorce which resulted in Gerharstreiter being convicted in Massachusetts in 2009 of kidnapping his daughter. During his four- to five-year prison sentence for kidnapping, the Los Angeles District Attorney charged him in 2011 with the murder of Sohus, a 27-year-old computer programmer.

According to Balian, the man then known as Christopher Chichester killed Sohus by repeatedly smashing him over the head with a heavy blunt object, then stabbing the victim six times with a sharp object. Ultimately, Balian explained, Gerhartsreiter bundled Sohus' body in plastic bags, and buried him inside a fiberglass box in the backyard of the home of Sohus' mother.

Balian said that in 1985 Ruth "DiDi" Sohus was a broken woman believing that her son had abandoned her in her old age, when in fact, Gerhartsreiter, the man to whom she rented her guest house, had killed her son and buried him in the backyard. His skeletal remains were unearthed in 1994 when a subsequent homeowner decided to build a pool.

Balian chose not to present an explicit motive for the murder. Nor did he explain what might have happened to Linda Sohus. Gerhartsreiter is charged only with John Sohus' murder. With regard to Linda Sohus, Balian said only that the couple "vanished in early Feb. of 1985."

These two opening statements introduced a perplexing conundrum of conflicting riddles for the jury to ponder: Was Linda Sohus also murdered? Was Linda Sohus the murderer? Did she simply disappear?

For the first time Monday, Balian revealed that investigators believe Gerhartsreiter inadvertently left his "calling cards" on the dead body. Two of the plastic bags which wrapped the victim's smashed skull were from separate alma maters where the accused attended school.

One of the plastic bags was from the University of Southern California (USC), where Gerhartsreiter took film classes; USC is a school almost anyone in San Marino could have attended or cheered the storied football program. However, the other bag was from a less prominently known school, the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, where Gerhartsreiter attended classes prior to moving to California and assuming the Chichester identity.

Both the prosecutor and the defense spent time discussing a series of mysterious post cards that were sent from Paris to family and friends of  John and Linda Sohus in 1986, just months after their sudden disappearance. The postcards were all signed Linda Sohus.

One postcard came to a close friend of Linda Sohus, another to DiDi Sohus, and the third to Linda Sohus' boss at the science fiction book store where she worked in 1985. Prosecutors contend these postcards were somehow sent from Paris under Gerhartsreiter's direction as a means to cover his crime, "creating the illusion that John and Linda (Sohus) were away" traveling in Europe.

Prosecutor Balian explained that neither Sohus even had a passport to travel outside the country, nor were there any U.S. customs records indicating that either of them traveled out of the country to Europe in early 1985. However, Balian intimated Linda Sohus had written the postcards "under a con" perpetrated by Gerhartsreiter, as prosecution experts could not discount that Linda may well have penned the postcards.

Alternately, defense attorney Bailey argued those very postcards were evidence that Linda Sohus survived after John Sohus' murder when the two disappeared in early Feb. of 1985. Furthermore, he explained that a fourth friend also received one of these postcards but had not saved it.

Bailey insisted Gerhartsreiter client is not the one "covering his tracks, but somebody else did and that's Linda Sohus." The trial resumes Tuesday as prosecutors begin calling their witnesses from a list of 50 Balian says he plans to question.

This story was reported by 48 Hours producer Greg Fisher. Twitter: @cbscrimefish

Complete coverage of the Rockefeller impostor murder case on Crimesider